By Tom Krattenmaker
The country, he charged, had “gone mad on war.” Poor and black soldiers were being killed and maimed in a far-off country fighting for freedoms they themselves did not enjoy in places like Georgia and East Harlem. America’s soul, he said, was poisoned by hate.
It’s not part of the feel-good story we like to tell on Martin Luther King Day. But on April 4 exactly 50 years ago, King gave a damning and historically important speech at Riverside Church in New York that, while seldom discussed these days, deserves to be remembered — and heeded.
Many tellers of the history say the moment sealed King’s fate. It’s eerie to realize his assassination in Memphis came on that same date —April 4 — one year later.
King’s evolution from civil rights champion to an anti-war, anti-poverty Jeremiah brought down the wrath of the press and public, even many of his civil rights movement supporters. His popularity plummeted — as it probably would today if more people pondered the MLK of 1967 and 1968.
Why? Because much of what King railed against in that venerable Manhattan church a half century ago still grips us today, still holds the country back from realizing the inspiring ideals and potential of America that held King in their thrall.
The truths he spoke are hard to face. Ever the champion of nonviolence, King warned against over-reliance on the instruments and mentality of war. Progressives pondering those words today will immediately connect them to the border wall and proposed military buildup of the Trump administration, not to mention the president’s enemy-making rhetoric about immigrants and travelers from certain Middle Eastern countries.
Not to imply equivalency, but liberals would do well to look in the mirror, too. Although its military misdeeds pale next to most administrations, the much-admired Obama presidency bears the taint of a drone warfare strategy that killed hundreds of civilians. Low-grade violence occasionally plagues progressive movements and demonstrations today, including the rough shut-downs of campus speakers at Berkeley and Middlebury this year.
Most of us — conservative and liberal — would likewise tune out or mock King’s insistence on loving our enemies. This is an ethic he copped from Jesus and modeled for his country by refusing to hate even the worst bigots and most vicious defenders of segregation, never surrendering hope that each could be transformed by philanthropic love.
King urged his listeners at Riverside Church 50 years ago today to embrace a “neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation.” He called for a “revolution of values.” Every nation, he said, “must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”
Good luck selling that ethic in the age of Brexit, nationalism and Trump’s “America First,” and to a progressive community that shows virtually no interest in understanding and associating with those who do not share our cultural and political values. Yet King is so right — in 2017 just as he was in 1967.
It’s sad to realize on this anniversary that no one fills the vacancy left by MLK’s assassination in 1968. Bernie Sanders, with his searing indictments of the administration and our country’s festering injustices, with his calls for political “revolution,” might occasionally sound King-like. But the similarities quickly fade, for reasons including the two men’s races and very different occupations — King being a preacher and prophet, and Sanders a politician.
The closest figure we have today is probably William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the impressive Moral Mondays movement — and not only or primarily because he’s black. Like King, Barber is a minister and, like King, he has mastered the voice of morality and inspiration. Given the convergence, it’s more than fitting that Barber preached at Riverside Church on Sunday to help launch the church’s yearlong “Beyond the Dream” initiative to remember and honor the different King who came out 50 years ago today.
The country has reconciled itself to much of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. — to the point where the King of the early and mid-1960s is embraced by conservatives and liberals alike. It’s time now to follow him beyond that dream to the broader, deeper and more challenging one he evoked 50 years ago today.
A member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity School. His new book is titled Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.